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Patty Smith Hill (27 March 1868–25 May 1946), a pioneer in the Kindergarten movement, influenced the shape of early childhood education in the United States. She spent most of her professional life at Teachers College, Columbia University, as professor, director of the Horace Mann School, and teacher educator. As an early childhood advocate, she established a pedagogical foundation upon which the modern U.S. Kindergarten is based.

Hill’s early childhood experiences were powerful in the formation of her educational philosophy. Born near Louisville, Kentucky, she was the daughter of Dr. William Hill, a Presbyterian minister who founded Bellewood Female Seminary. Her mother, Martha, received college-level private tutoring at Centre College. Though earned, she never received a formal degree because she was a woman.

Quite different from practices in other homes of the Reconstruction South, Hill’s mother believed that children should have every pleasure if there was not a good reason for them not to. Hill and her five siblings, thus, were encouraged to be independent thinkers. They spent hours exploring the woods and building with bricks, barrels, and boards, playing freely until their mother waved a red flag to signal for her children to come indoors. Even as Dr. Hill moved his family to serve different colleges throughout the United States, Mrs. Hill established extensive play areas at each new home.

Reflecting Dr. Hill’s dedication to the higher education of women, the Hills encouraged each daughter to pursue a profession. After graduating from Louisville Collegiate Institute in 1887, Patty Hill joined the Louisville Kindergarten Training School as Anna E. Bryan’s assistant and student. The greatest influence on early childhood education of this time was Fredrich Fröbel, who started the first Kindergarten in Germany. Quickly, the Fröbelian movement swept across the early childhood landscape. Miss Bryan, however, encourage her students to not follow Fröbel blindly, and see what they could do themselves. Thus, Hill experimented with alternative classroom procedures.

Upon Miss Bryan’s departure, Hill became principal and supervisor of the Louisville Kindergarten Training School. Her unique work with kindergarteners became well known, and G. Stanley Hall invited her to Clark University to learn about recent research in the field of child psychology. After she exhibited her work at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, John Dewey invited her to the University of Chicago for summer study. For 12 years, Hill served as director of the Louisville Kindergarten Training Schools and studied during the summer months with Hall, Dewey, Colonel Francis W. Parker, and Luther Gulick, the father of the U.S. playground movement.

Through these years, Hill participated in conferences, conducted meetings with other kindergarten directors, and held classes for her students’ parents on a variety of topics, including the educational value of play, causes of child activity, and individuality of training based on sensory and motor types. By the early 1900s, through her professional activities, Louisville became nationally recognized as a place in which innovative ideas about early childhood were being nurtured. Clearly, Patty Smith Hill was influencing the course of the early childhood movement on a nationwide scale.

A founding member of the International Kindergarten Union (IKU) in 1892, Hill served on many different IKU committees. In these settings, she spoke about her interpretation of the Fröbelian method to increasingly widespread audiences. During an IKU conference on “Gifts and Occupations,” Hill appealed for a broader interpretation of Fröbel. She suggested that educators look more toward Fröbel’s theory than his methodology. Throughout her career, Hill pursued a deeper meaning of accepted practices and always honored that which had gone before.

In 1905, Dean Earl Russell of Teachers College, Columbia University, invited Hill to join his faculty. Dean Russell recognized the importance of hiring faculty with opposing viewpoints. With Miss Mary Runyan and Susan E. Blow on staff, both staunch Fröbelians, Dean Russell considered Hill to be a “young radical” (Snyder 1972, 253).

During her first few years at Teachers College, Hill attempted to implement her ideas at the Speyer School in New York. Her efforts were resisted, however, because of years of strict Fröbelian leadership at the school. Nevertheless, she made progress in the changing nature of her intellectual milieu. John Dewey became head of Columbia University’s Department of Philosophy, and Edward Thorndike at Teachers College stirred waves of interest in learning and measurement. In 1910, Hill became head of the College’s Department of Kindergarten Education and full professor in 1922.

Soon, Hill’s ideas of free play, creativity, and social living were embraced within the Horace Mann School at Teachers College. She followed John Dewey’s principles of education, particularly theories on socialized schools, the relation of interest to effort, and moral training and of thinking. Indeed, with a shift from strict Fröbelian thought, kindergarten practitioners developed concerns for materials and equipment. The “Patty Smith Hill” blocks, which lent themselves to building structures large enough for children to enter, became popular. Children played with pots and pans, play money, trucks, cars, boats, trains, eye-hand coordination games, and other toys. Increasing numbers of kindergartens became convinced that free social organization was bringing the results they deemed necessary for children to become productive citizens.

Through continued study and collaboration with psychologist Agnes Rogers, Hill developed a “Tentative Inventory of Habits,” a list of 84 desired kindergarten habits toward which instruction should be directed. First used at the Horace Mann School, it also was employed at the Laboratory School at The University of Chicago and elsewhere across the nation.

As Hill continued her professional career, she visited Russia to assist in the development of kindergarten programs there. She also continued to serve as a leader in the IKU. She wrote a series of books applying the principles of her “Conduct Curriculum” to specific fields such as music, art, writing, language and literature, behavior, and science (Beatty 1995; Snyder 1972).

Hill retired from Teachers College in 1935. In the midst of the Great Depression, she became involved with the Federal Emergency Nursery Schools, which became the starting point for her Manhattanville Project, a collaborative plan to rehabilitate the Manhattanville area of New York City. It brought together talent from Columbia University, Teachers College, Union Theological Seminary, Jewish Theological Seminary, and Julliard School of Music.

One such move included the development of a neighborhood nursery school, called Hilltop. Through the Federal Emergency Nursery Schools Program, the federal government supplied money for salaries of teachers, nurses, parent workers, dieticians, and doctors. Hill secured a rent-free location in the former Jewish Theological Seminary. Teachers College financed all physical maintenance of Hilltop School. The program continued from 1932 until 1938, when the Dean of Teachers College closed Hilltop due to the College’s inability to sustain the institution financially (Snyder 1972).

Still, Hill continued with the rehabilitation of the Manhattanville area. She maintained her “family camp,” at which residents of Manhattanville attempted to rebuild a dilapidated farm with high hopes of building cottages and fostering studies of landscaping, gardening, and decoration. Though these aspirations never came to fruition, families continued to frequent the camp until 1964, when it was sold.

Throughout her retirement years, Hill continued her involvement at Teachers College through guest seminars and interests in international affairs. She labored for the education of young children for the remainder of her life.

Contributed by Elizabeth A. Swanson, The University of Texas at Austin

Beatty, B. 1995. Preschool education in America: The culture of young children from the colonial era to the present. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Burke, A., E. Conard, A. Dalgliesh, and P. S. Hill. 1924. A conduct curriculum for the kindergarten and first grade. New York: Scribner’s.

Farquhar, S. E., and P. S. Hill. 1942. Childcraft. Chicago: Quarrie Corp.

Fediaevskaia, V. M., and P. S. Hill. 1936. Nursery school and parent education in Soviet Russia. New York: E. P. Dutton.

Fowlkes, M. A. 1984. Gifts from childhood’s godmother—Patty Smith Hill. Childhood Education 61(1): 44–49.

Gwinn, F. F. 1954. Patty Smith Hill in Louisville. Louisville, Ky.: University of Louisville Press.

Hill, P. S. 1915. Experimental studies in kindergarten theory and practice. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.

Hill, P. S. 1931. The child builder. Chicago: Foundation Desk Co.

Hill, P. S. 1942. Kindergarten. Washington, D.C.: Association for Childhood Education International.

Leonard, M. S., and P. S. Hill. 1924. The home educator. Chicago: Foundation Desk Co.

MacVannel, J. A., and P. S. Hill. 1909. Kindergarten problems: The materials of the kindergarten. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.

Rudnitski, R. A. 1995. Patty Smith Hill, gifted early childhood educator of the progressive era. Roeper Review 18(1): 19–24.

Snyder, A. 1972. Dauntless women in childhood education. Washington, D.C.: Association for Childhood Education International.

Weber, E. 1984. Ideas influencing early childhood education: A theoretical analysis. New York: Teachers College Press.

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